Obituary: Helen McConnochie, Hawke’s Bay earthquake survivor and radio pioneer

Helen McConnochie was also one of the first recipients of one of broadcasting’s highest honors, the Bill Toft Memorial Award. Photo / NZME

Obituary: Helen McConnochie
1925 – 2022

Napier’s Helen McConnochie was a pioneer in women’s broadcasting in New Zealand.

She died peacefully at home in Napier on March 14, 2022, aged 96.

She began working in radio in New Zealand in the late 1950s and had a 41-year career in the medium, including her own regular program promoting and advocating for people with disabilities.

McConnochie was also one of the first recipients of one of broadcasting’s highest honors, the Bill Toft Memorial Award.

It all started with a passion for language and theatre, nurtured by her father Sam, a Glasgow native who sparked her interest in reading and reciting the classics, and her mother May.

May was a piano teacher from Taranaki who encouraged Helen to travel to further her talent in the performing arts.

But Helen’s education didn’t start well. She was buckled up on her first day at Nelson Park School and on her second day the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake occurred.

Her father rode his bike around cracks and cracks in the road and found her ducking under a truck.

After the quake, she and her mother evacuated to Woodville for some time.

Upon returning to Napier, Helen attended Te Awa Primary School, where she was not particularly interested in schoolwork, but enjoyed and thrived on sports, languages, performances and poetry.

In her retirement, Helen also put together a book - After Words - in which survivors of the Hawke's Bay earthquake shared their experiences.  Photo / NZME
In her retirement, Helen also put together a book – After Words – in which survivors of the Hawke’s Bay earthquake shared their experiences. Photo / NZME

At Napier Intermediate, she received awards in athletics and drama.

She began taking language classes at age 12, choosing drama over athletics. Her strong interest in language and theater continued at Napier Girls’ High School and she had plans to develop it further.

Helen’s first job after leaving school was at Hector McGregor Electrical, where she worked to save money to study drama in London.

While working, she continued her speaking and acting classes, entered competitions, completed her Trinity Letters (ATCL and LTCL), and appeared in local plays and musicals.

In the early 1950s, Helen traveled to England via Pitcairn Island and Panama to continue her studies.

Her accounts of this period reveal her excitement and enthusiasm for London’s social and cultural life, although the effects of World War II, with rationing and bombed buildings, were evident.

Missing out on a place at the London Academy of Music (Drama Section), she secured a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she was told, “Thank God you don’t have a New Zealand accent”.

She worked in a furniture store and as a farm hand to finance her studies.

Upon returning to New Zealand, Helen taught language and English at a number of schools including Iona College, giving private language tuition and directing amateur plays.

Then the opportunity arose to get my foot in the door in broadcasting.

She first worked in women’s ministry at 2ZC in Napier before completing her apprenticeship in Wellington.

Stations on radio stations in Nelson and Wanganui followed, and she received frequent phone calls
Host fashion shows and other community events.

In the mid-1960s, Helen got frustrated and returned to Britain, where she worked in the National Economic and Development Office.

There she was asked to be a guest speaker at the annual Women of Scotland luncheon.

When she returned to New Zealand, Helen was called to the Women’s Lessons program in Rotorua.

She threw herself into learning Esperanto, which at the time was intended to be a universal second language for international communication.

And in Rotorua, Helen met a young writer named Fiona Kidman, who encouraged Helen to start producing plays again.

Upon learning of Helen's death, Dame Fiona Kidman described Helen as
Upon learning of Helen’s death, Dame Fiona Kidman described Helen as “a good friend and mentor”.

Upon learning of Helen’s death, Dame Fiona described Helen as “a good friend and mentor”.

Helen spent the rest of her working life in Wellington. She worked in Special Projects at Broadcasting House on a number of programs including Bookshelf and Feminine Viewpoint, which later became Viewpoint.

She took over a Saturday program, Saturday Miscellany, and expanded its scope to include material from foreign stations.

Word of her program spread, and she was invited to the United States to attend an American women’s radio and television conference, where she was asked to become the organization’s first international member.

An invitation to attend the International Women in Broadcasting and TV Conference in communist Bulgaria followed.

In 1979, Helen founded the Future Indicative radio program which gave her long immersion in the disability sector where she was seconded to committees and was involved in the 1981 International Year of People with Disabilities.

In 1986 she received the Bill Toft Award, given to radio and television stations that demonstrate leadership in broadcasting excellence.

Helen retired in 1991 and returned to live in Napier. She continued her role in advocacy for the disabled, pursuing a range of interests in the arts, the Napier Museum Committee, the New Zealand Book Council and the University of the Third Age (U3A).

In her retirement, Helen also put together a book – After Words – in which survivors of the Hawke’s Bay earthquake shared their experiences.

Helen is fondly remembered by her family and friends as a persistent, patient, polite, interested and inquisitive person who kept her brain active until her death last month, reading a wide range of books and always doing the cryptic Listener crosswords completed.

Obituary by Helen’s nieces Alison Robertson and Janet Wright

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